9 Feb 2018

Too much music: can you listen to all the music you own?

From RNZ Music, 12:00 pm on 9 February 2018

James Jackson Toth is a musician and writer for the likes of  NPR, Stereogum and Salon. He worries that we're being inundated with too much music. Yadana Saw spoke to him about his recent essay 'Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening'.

Yadana can't cope with the amount of music around

Yadana can't cope with the amount of music around Photo: Kirsten Johnstone

It's a very amusing and relatable story for anyone who's finding it hard to cope with the deluge of music that's now available to us: at the start of 2017 James Tosh embarked on an experiment where he tried listeing to only one album per week.

The first first thing you need to know is that Toth owns quite a lot of music:

He owns an estimated eight thousand CDs, around five thousand vinyl records and another two thousand cassettes.

“All of this requires me to have a storage facility because I don’t have a home big enough to accommodate all this stuff.” 

He thinks he has a modest amount of digital music: “I only have 33.7GB of digital music.”

James Jackson Toth

James Jackson Toth Photo: Lisa Toth

"I also don’t collect anything else. I don’t own clothes. I don’t have DVDs. I’ve been wearing the same clothes since high school more or less. But for the most part I’m not really materialistic or acquisitive in any other way.

"I sell records on Discogs and Ebay and the money never really leaves PayPal, so it’s almost like a barter system, a fund to buy more records ... If something’s not getting played or at least attention paid to it I usually try to get rid of it."

Why did he embark on this experiment?

"I couldn’t remember titles, and I couldn’t remember details about them and that was quite unlike me. And I realised that was because I was simply hearing too much.

"It’s very distressing for me because my wife has always kinda made fun of me ... I wouldn’t remember what I’d had for breakfast this morning” but James could easily recall any trainspotting detail about music from the Grateful Dead to Sade." It was time to take action.

He began his project, rather boldly, with Autechre’s Oversteps, which is extremely challenging listening. They make avant-guarde, noisy electronic music.

Why did he start with such a glitchy, experimental album?

"With a group like Autechre or certain jazz groups, or classical pieces, you’re always finding more inside of it. I feel with a group like Autechre it would be a challenge. I chose it specifically because it was difficult and I thought I would spend a lot of time to unpack it.

"As much as I love pop music and rock music, I feel for the most part, after a few listens, you get it. I don’t think there’s a lot more to discover than ‘Hey I really like this song’.

What were the rules for the experiment?

1. Only one album per week

"With the possible exception of being exposed to something while you’re out, the point is to not be distracted by other albums."

2. The album had to be a physical, hard copy and could be from any time,and of any genre

"The hard copy - even if it's an album without liner notes or lyrics or thank yous - there's a reason why a record is packaged a certain way, or an aesthetic that we attach to it when we listen to it.

"I think of the records I have loved over the years, and to me the album cover is inextricable from the music."

3. You are free to listen to the album in any context you desire

"It should not feel like homework."

" Oversteps was surprisingly conducive with breakfast. It was more the middle of the day, when I tried to discipline myself to an attentive and dedicated listen, where I said, ‘Right now I’m gonna take this 45 minutes, sit down and listen,’ and then it suddenly felt like another chore, and that sort of defeats the purpose."

4. There's no minimum listening time

"If you hated it so much that it was better to choose silence, then that was a concession you were allowed to make. Because you didn’t want to torture yourself ... I wanted it to be something you could revisit even if you knew the record really well."

What were his findings?

"That the experiment is - if not impossible - extremely difficult. I do encourage anyone that wants to try it, to try it and you can do it with anything, books, movies anything where you acquisition is going faster than you’re enjoying."

He says in his essay:

“Four days in, I resign myself to the fact that my experiment is a complete failure, and there is no point in continuing it. My willpower collapses absolutely; my desire to hear Autechre — anything by Autechre — is gone.”

“It’s a very difficult thing to do, it says more about the times [we live in] than my own failure as a listener. The experiment taught me as a listener that I need to figure out a way to adapt and not feel so concerned about keeping up with things, but also not to be so hardline about it. Not to be unyielding when it comes to experiments like this.”

James writes and performs under the name Wooden Wand. His latest album Clipper Ship is available on Bandcamp